Press freedom in Palestine: Condemned to self-censor

In the Palestinian Autonomous Territories, Palestinian journalists are being used as bargaining chips in the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah. The scope for free and independent reporting is becoming noticeably smaller. By Inge Gunther

By Inge Günther

To this day, the five Palestinian journalists have not been told why they were detained two weeks ago. They spent a week behind bars at a Palestinian Authority jail on the West Bank. The five, who work for opposition online media including outlets loyal to Hamas, have now been released. But speaking after his release, one member of the group Kotaibeh Kasem, a freelancer from Bethlehem, said he had at no point been confronted with concrete accusations. He went on to say that he has had frequent run-ins with President Mahmoud Abbas' security authorities. And on this occasion, he immediately suspected "that this was a political detention."

To put it bluntly, it could be said that the five journalists served Palestinian security agencies as a kind of bargaining chip to force Hamas in Gaza to free a reporter associated with Fatah. Fouad Jaradeh, Gaza correspondent for "Palestine TV", the news channel associated with Abbas, had been thrown in jail by Hamas police around two months ago. They finally released him in mid-August, whereupon autonomy government authorities released the aforementioned five journalists from detention.

Independent reporting impossible

It is well-known that Hamas does not balk at the idea of hostage-taking. But now, it would appear that West Bank security agencies trained by the EU and the U.S. are also resorting to mafia-style methods to put pressure on Islamist rulers in Gaza. "It can't really be described any other way," says Shawan Jabarin, director of the Al-Haq civil rights organisation in Ramallah and adds: "arbitrary arrests under any random pretext are a crime." Under such circumstances, Palestinian journalists have little opportunity to carry out independent reporting, even if they are not affiliated to either Fatah or Hamas.

Palestine′s President Mahmoud Abbas (photo: picture-alliance/abaca)
Sliding towards authoritarian rule: human rights activists accuse the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of stifling freedom of speech. Omar Nassal of the Palestinian Journalists Union referred to the current situation "dire". The reason: Abbas′ new legislation to prevent cyber crime, pushed through by presidential decree without any public discussion

In this latest case, the pretext for the arrest was supplied by a highly-problematic law to punish cyber crimes, enacted by presidential decree by Abbas. The law does not define the parameters of "hate speech". It does not even attempt to draw a boundary between freedom of speech and incitement to commit crimes. Publishing something on websites or in other social media that allegedly threatens public order or endangers (in reality non-existent) national unity is enough to risk a year in jail. Threats have even been issued to impose a maximum sentence "for life".

As well as vague accusations, this law grants far-reaching police powers. For example, Internet providers are obliged to retain their data for three years, so that these can be shared with the authorities at any time. Protection of privacy and personal privacy go unmentioned.

"The erosion of fundamental rights"

This is all incompatible with freedom of speech and media freedom, says Jabarin. Hamas couldn't care less. But the autonomy leadership in Ramallah, which sees itself as the only legitimate representation of Palestine, which is after all still a UN non-member observer state, should be bound to international legal agreements. It is just that recently, Abbas' people appear frequently to forget this in the newly heightened power struggle between Fatah and Hamas, a struggle which Abbas' rival Mohammed Dahlan has recently begun muscling in on. Since June, the authorities in Ramallah have blocked some 30 critical websites, which allegedly sympathise either with ex-Fatah leader Dahlan or the Islamists.

Hanan Ashrawi (photo: Hanan Ashrawi)
"We are experiencing an erosion of fundamental rights," agrees Hanan Ashrawi, the grand dame of the Palestinian human rights movement. She regards the new, restrictive cyber law as "unacceptable and moreover incompatible with fundamental agreements that we have signed"

"We are experiencing an erosion of fundamental rights," agrees Hanan Ashrawi, the grand dame of the Palestinian human rights movement. These days, she is a member of the PLO executive committee responsible for culture and the media. One reason for this deterioration is "of course the Israeli occupation," stresses Ashrawi.  But home-made problems such as the enactment of laws without parliamentary control cannot be ignored, she adds.

In any case she believes the cyber law is "unacceptable and moreover incompatible with fundamental agreements that we have signed." Ashrawi also made her standpoint clear at the latest gathering of representatives of Palestinian civil society, autonomy government and public prosecutors. In the end, they agreed to recommend that the controversial law be cancelled or completely rewritten.

The problem is, Abbas has the final word and the 82-year-old is developing increasingly authoritarian traits. "The autonomy leadership is evidently emulating all the bad examples in the Arab world and around us," says civil rights activist Jabarin. It may sound as though he's being ironic, but his concern is serious. "Here in the West Bank," he concedes, "we've certainly got more political leeway than in Gaza. But it's becoming less and less."

Just how much less is evidenced by a poll conducted by the Palestinian media institute MADA, in which 80 percent of domestic journalists admit to self-censorship out of necessity.

Inge Gunther

© 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon